Janis Ian with honorary degree recipient Billy Edd Wheeler ’53
Janis Ian performs “At Seventeen”
Grammy Award winner Janis Ian sang and spoke to the delight of graduates, families and friends gathered on Sunderland Lawn May 12 for the 2012 Warren Wilson College Commencement. Ian began her address by performing her unforgettable song “At Seventeen.” Here’s the text of her Commencement Address:
Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests. Mr. Belk, and my dear friend Billy Edd Wheeler. Mr. President, Mr. Former President, Mr. President Who Is Not Here As Yet, and those of you who hope one day to be president – good morning.
For those who came for the fashion show, and have no clue as to why I’m standing here, my name is Janis Ian. I am a songwriter by trade. I wrote my first song at twelve – was published at thirteen – made a record at fourteen, had a number one single at fifteen, was a has-been at sixteen.
By your age I was starting my second career, struggling to be known as something other than a child prodigy. Fortunately for me, I was again successful. Which doesn’t begin to explain why I’m here. In fact, I’m more at a loss than any of you. I never graduated from college because I never went to college. For that matter, I barely went to high school. The first day of first grade, when my mother asked me how it had gone, I told her I hated it and was never going back.
I hated school all my life. I quit the day I turned sixteen, and I have never regretted it. So I find it ironic that I put my brother through college, my mother through college and graduate school, and my partner through law school. And after all that, I now help to fund a foundation that does the same for complete strangers. I cannot understand it myself, except that I was taught to give back, and I can think of no better gift than an education.
I am nervous today because almost everything I know is self-taught. I learned from books, and movies, and other artists. So I’m not quite sure how to deal with a horde of people who know about things like final exams, graduation ceremonies, dorm rooms, and Sterno.
I tried to figure out what graduating must feel like. My last graduation ceremony was sixth grade, when the homeroom teacher gave us each a pencil box and warned us not to chew the erasers until the end of next year.
At first I wondered if it was like writing a song. There’s an incredible feeling of achievement; it’s like walking on air. And then, an equally incredible letdown as you wonder whether you’ll ever be able to do it again.
Then I thought perhaps it’s like making a record. That takes a good three months, a very long time in the life of a performer. And at the end, you feel pretty good about it… at least, until it comes out and no one but your family buys it.
Last, I thought maybe graduating from college must be like having a baby. That takes nine months, plus a little preparation. But unlike graduating, where you actually get to leave and move on, that baby is with you forever. Sometimes they even move back in, whereas I doubt most of you plan to come back here and take courses next semester.
Now, I think that going off to college and graduating must be like being an astronaut. One day, you’re down here in a familiar place. You know what is normal, what the sky looks like at night, what the air smells like when the grass is fresh-mowed. Your feet are planted on the earth, and you have a firm connection to that soil. You know the shape of the stars at night. There’s a certain comfort in all that.
Then one day, by your own choice, you leave it all behind and take off for outer space! And “normal” changes, because nothing is normal any longer. Even the familiar things – the Earth, now seen from the stars – gravity, where “up” is now a relative term– even those things are strange and unfamiliar.
So I think going off to college and graduating must be like being an astronaut. There’s the tremendous excitement when it begins, the fear and astonishment that you of all people get to do this great thing. Then there’s the wear and tear, the daily struggle, the incredible effort to make everything work. And at some point, there’s the boredom, the waiting for it to finally be over. Then, as you approach re-entry, the fear that you will fail, and in failing, be destroyed.
America is built on the dream of success. For centuries, that dream has been defined by financial achievement, political power, dominance and subjugation. We are rarely asked what success really represents to us, or why failure is so demeaning.
I rarely failed in what I did, because if I wasn’t good at it, I didn’t do it. I played piano at two, and played well. I picked up a guitar at ten, and within a couple of years I was writing songs good enough to get Grammy nominations. I succeeded in everything I did – writing, performing, recording. But in my early thirties, I found myself at a loss. I was wealthy, respected, admired… but I hated my work. I longed to be Picasso, and instead it felt like I was painting Christ on black velvet to sell at the local mall. And it was killing me.
You see, I am an artist. I believe that art saves. I believe it is often the only thing that stands between us and chaos. I have faith that while the world is crumbling, art survives. So to feel like my work was a mockery of what I could do, that I was not living up to my talent… well, it was killing me.
I was fortunate, at that time, to know a great lady of the theater – Stella Adler. She was 83 years old to my 33, and through her I’d come to understand that my legacy as an artist went far beyond the work of my generation. My legacy began with the first caveman who sat down around a fire and told a story of the day’s hunt. My legacy began the first time someone described the stars as diamonds, spread across a blanket in the sky. My legacy began when that first crude piece of life began – because that’s what art really is. A beginning.
And all I knew was endings.
When I told Stella I couldn’t seem to write anything that pleased me, she took my hands in hers and said “Oh, my dear. You have reached the age where talent is no longer enough.” I’d been successful because of my talent, but I had learned about as much as I could from my gifts, and it was time to learn differently now.
Truth be known, success doesn’t teach you much. Failure, disappointment, collapse – those are the things that build. You can only know what works when you know what doesn’t work. That’s hard-wired in our bones. How many times does a baby fall on its butt, before it learns to stand without help? It learns a lot from falling – up and down, sideways and backwards, coordination, looking ahead – paying attention. And every time it fails, those muscles get stronger.
I had to learn to fail before I could find my way again. So over the next few years, I took on a bunch of things I’d always been scared of before.
I took ballet. You can’t tell from there, but underneath this robe is not a ballerina’s body. My dance teacher told me months later that after my first day, her only thought was “Good God, how can I get her to leave and never come back?!”
I was awful at ballet. I was awful at opera, photography, physics, and line dancing. And I loved every minute of it, because I learned to separate knowledge from the worldly view of success.
So get used to failure. Learn to embrace it. Because this world will beat you up. This world remembers failure before it rewards success. It blurs the line between fame and notoriety, between pandering and achievement. You will fail, and fail over and over again. The rest of us survive it – so will you.
Speaking of failure, another thing to know as you go out to face the world is that most people will not like you. I’m sure you’re astonished to hear that, but it’s true. And that’s okay. Between Facebook and Twitter and Google Plus, we have so many friends we’re going to have to start hiring enemies just to see some contrast in our social lives.
A person can only tolerate so many friends. Robin Dunbar theorizes that humans only have the brain capacity to manage 100-250 relationships total.
250 people is about the amount of people graduating this year. Do you really know each and every one of them well enough to care what they think about you? Embrace you failed relationships. They will turn out to be more important than you’d think.
You are the largest graduating class Warren Wilson College has known. That’s a great and a dangerous thing. Great, because it means the school’s message is being heard in ever-widening circles. Dangerous, because with growth comes temptation. We have only to look at the banking industry to know that.
So be good alumni. Not just by sending money. Any idiot can make money. Anyone with a bank account can send it. Money is important, but it’s just a medium of exchange. You can have fifty million dollars in your hands, but it won’t keep Alzheimer’s at bay. You can be as rich as Croesus, but if you are dying of thirst in the desert and your companion has only enough water for one, all the money in the world will not buy it for you.
Money is a medium of exchange. It has no intrinsic value. It’s only useful if you can use it to buy what’s really important. So think about what is really important to you.
From my vantage point, time and energy are precious commodities. I don’t remember the last time I was bored, because I can’t remember the last time I had time to be bored. For me, money buys the time to do what I care about, not what’s expected of me.
You’ve spent much of your lives doing what this world expects of you. Honor your father and mother. Tie your shoelaces. Don’t wear pajamas to school. Get good grades, be upwardly mobile. Graduate.
Now they will expect other things. Straighten up. Get a job. Get married. Raise 1.14 children. Don’t rock the boat, don’t push too hard, don’t take on things you can’t handle, don’t act like a kid any more, don’t don’t don’t.
People from your old life will say “I’ve known you for years. I know who you are, what you need, what you want. Choose this, not that. Trust me, I know what’s best for you.”
Don’t you believe it. Don’t you believe it for a second! No one knows better than you who you are. And who you are has changed enormously since you got here. If there is one thing you can count on in this world, it’s that people change. Relationships evolve. Nothing stays the same.
Years from now, this day will be just one highlight in a life of highlights. So pay attention. Learn to love yourself. I don’t mean how good you look, how smart you are, how whatever… love your self. The indefinable things that make you into you.
This world will not hand it to you. This world will grind your nose into the dust and dare you to get up. This world will tell you everything you cannot become, and try to suck you into the poverty of its own diminished expectations.
Don’t fall for it. Don’t let fear rule you. Don’t even let it come into consideration. Live as though there is nothing on earth to fear. You will get hurt. Your heart will get hurt. There will be pain. This world is a hard and unyielding place – but it is a good place to be alive. And if you make your own mistakes, if you embrace your own failures, they will be yours, and you will learn from them and profit by them.
At the end of the day, we all stand alone. I have lived with the love of my life for 23 years, and yet at the end of the day, I know we are alone.
You are a country of one. You must make your own miracles. And you cannot make a miracle without failing now and then.
Astonish yourself with your bravery, and you will astonish the world as well.
Thank you for your time.
You also can read the Senior Speech by biology major Sam Wasko here.